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The Meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment

In this lesson, students analyze and compare important Supreme Court decisions involving the Fourteenth Amendment and civil rights. The Fourteenth Amendment was passed in 1868 shortly after the Civil War ended.  This time period is known as Reconstruction Era.  Two other amendments were passed shortly after the War,  the Thirteenth and Fifthteenth Amendments,  that extended civil rights to African Americans. 


Lesson Summary


Why were the promises made by the post-Civil War amendments so important? In this lesson, students analyze and compare important Supreme Court decisions involving the Fourteenth Amendment and civil rights. This is the first of three lessons that comprise a unit on the Fourteenth Amendment. For the other two lessons, see Decisions Affect History: The Limitations of the Fourteenth Amendment Lesson Plan and Liberty of Contract Lesson Plan. For extension activities to use with this unit, visit the Supreme Court Website.


Students describe the Fourteenth Amendment and how it is associated with due process and equal protection.

Grade Level:


Suggested Time

Approx. (1) 50 minute period

Media Resources


Before The Lesson

  • Prepare the necessary materials, including student handouts, which are found above. If possible, copy each of the handouts onto a different color of paper. This will help you and your students keep track of which handout they should be working with at a given time.
  • Download the video segment used in the lesson.
  • Write the following on the board or copy it onto a transparency:

    The Thirteenth Amendment prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude except when it is part of a sentence when someone has been properly convicted of a crime. This is true throughout the United States and in any place the United States controls.

    The Fifteenth Amendment says that citizens of this country cannot be denied the right to vote based on race or color or because they were previously slaves. Congress can enforce this amendment by passing laws.

  • Prior to this lesson, students should have a basic understanding of the causes and outcomes of the Civil War. This background knowledge is not required, but it is helpful.
  • Consider inviting a lawyer, historian, prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, or judge to help you teach this lesson.

The Lesson

Part I: Introduction

1. Ask students to write down at least two causes of the United States Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865. Discuss their answers. If students are struggling, you might offer one of the suggestions below:

- Deep divisions existed in the country about slavery. Northern abolitionists fought to abolish it and prevent it from spreading into new states. Southerners defended slavery as part of their culture and economic viability.

- The Supreme Court's 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case proved incendiary in the conflict over slavery. This decision held that a black slave's residence in a free state did not necessarily make him free. It also said that Congress has no right to prohibit slavery in the territories and made the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.

- Lincoln was elected president with very little support from the slave states.

- In 1861, ten Southern states seceded from the Union, a new country was formed called the Confederate States of America, and Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.

2. Ask students to think of two results brought about by the Civil War. Answers will vary, but will likely include:

-Slavery ended.

-African Americans gained constitutional rights and protections.

-The Union survived, but deep divisions remained between the North and the South.

-The Reconstruction era began.

3. Tell students that law and history are intertwined. History has significantly affected the development of our laws and our laws have had major impact on our history. The conflicts in our courts often reflect changes in our basic values. Explain that the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments in the years following the Civil War represented a major shift in values. These amendments represent the ideals for which Northern abolitionists fought the war.

4. Project the transparency or show the summaries of the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments that you wrote on the board before class.

5. Distribute The Amendments handout. Ask students to work with a partner and to summarize the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in their own words. They should write down their answers on a sheet of paper. Give students approximately five minutes to do their work and then ask a few pairs to read their summaries aloud. Confirm that students have a basic understanding of the amendments.

6. Divide the class into groups of three or four students. Ask students to read Part II of the handout together and answer questions A and B as a group. Tell them they have seven minutes for this assignment and write the ending time on the board. If students need prompting, feel free to use the information provided below:

The Fourteenth Amendment:

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

7. Ask students to preview question C in Part III of their handout as a focus for viewing A New Kind of Justice QuickTime Video. Once the segment ends, take student responses to question C. You may use the following information to guide the discussion:

Answers will include:

- Getting married, starting businesses, buying property, getting educated, serving on juries, testifying in court, voting, becoming elected officials, etc.

Part II: Culminating Activity - Applying What You Have Learned About the Fourteenth Amendment

1. Explain to students that they will work with the same group of three or four students to complete the next activity. Distribute the handout Announcing the Passage of the 14th Amendment.

2. Review the directions and be sure students understand their task. Give each small group a large flip chart sheet of paper, some markers, and tape. Remind them they have 30 minutes and write the ending time on the board. Circulate around the room to observe and assist student groups.

3. When time is up, ask each group to hang their flip-chart paper in various corners or other wall spaces around the room. Ask one team member to stand next to the cover design to answer questions from other students. Then ask the other students to circulate around the room in a "carousel" style, viewing the other cover designs and asking questions if they have any. After a few minutes, let the students who were stationed near their poster switch with another student from their group so they can also see the work of other groups.

Check For Understanding

As a homework assignment or a class discussion, ask students the question below and discuss student answers.

- Supreme Court Justice David Souter called the Fourteenth Amendment "the most significant structural provision adopted since the original Framing [of the Constitution]." (McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky 2005) Do you agree with his assessment of it? Explain your reasons.


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